If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you

Context is everything. As Maya Jasanoff, the Harvard historian, asks, in lyrical terms: “If a writer harbored bias, shall we never speak his name? Or when he wrote with insight, might we read him all the same?” The questions appear in her review in The New Republic, of Christopher Benfey‘s If:  The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years. Benfey, a literary scholar, has sought to explain Kipling and “If” in the context of his decade-long American sojourn between 1889 and 1899.  Kipling’s famous poem is worth this kind of study because of its contemporary prominence. As Benfey’s back cover blurb frames it, in slightly limp terms:

… in recent decades Kipling’s reputation has suffered a strange eclipse. Though his body of work still looms large, and his monumental poem “If—” is quoted and referenced by politicians, athletes, and ordinary readers alike, his unabashed imperialist views have come under increased scrutiny.

That’s putting it mildly.  Jasanoff’s review caught my eye because I happen to teach (and completed a PhD) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London – a storied institution with its own colonial roots where today the intellectual activism surrounding Britain’s imperial past is a recurring and prominent (if not necessarily consistent or constant) feature of campus life. I also study the use of history and language in political decisions and processes, especially among foreign policy and national security elites, where the lessons of Munich, Korea and Vietnam are routinely invoked to help shape public discourse.

Jasanoff opens with a description of the University of Manchester’s tin-eared attempt in 2018 to publicly celebrate Kipling’s poem, and the student population’s delightfully creative rebuff of the move. Figures like Kipling, and their works, had their day; their contributions, even presented in context,  are now powerfully symbolic political devices, especially at a time when public discussion of decolonizing academia plays such an important part in debates around the content of higher education and equitable acccess to it.

For Benfey and Jasanoff, Kipling’s exposure to crass and brash American ways add a layer of meaning to how Kipling and his imperialism should be understood in their own context.  Benfey’s book, Jasanoff’s review of it, and my comments here, point to context as something that can be eliptically frustrating, a mobius strip of a tautology, endlessly looping back on itself to remind us of  historical details made newly relevant. Benfey, the literary scholar, stalking Kipling. Historian Jasanoff, stalking Benfey. Me, the student of politics, stalking all three.

It’s almost impossible to read any of this, today, without thinking in presentist terms of the unapologetic expressions of bloated (and possibly symbiotic) boorishness that have been emanating from Westminster and Washington.  Benfey’s book includes a listing of Vietnam-era references to If”. Meanwhile, I’m reminded of the niche interest in Kipling that flared up only a decade ago, as policymakers and soldiers tried to make sense of what they were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2010, for example, one new war veteran framed his memoir of military life and deadly battles in terms of  “the unforgiving minute“, a phrase lifted straight out of If. Others talked and wrote about “arithmetic on the frontier” – another Kipling poem – as they tried to come up with “metrics of success” in Afghanistan – another shade of Vietnam. Maybe context isn’t everything. But it is everywhere.